Keeping a Commonplace Box

Before the days of Pinterest, people had to store quotes, books to read, author’s commentary, observations, anecdotes, and other general interesting information for later digestion or to use in their future writing projects someplace else. And that place is called a commonplace box. Instead of digitally keeping a catalog of all things interesting, people kept them, literally, in a box. I think we should still do this, and here’s why.

Before the days of Pinterest and the Internet, cute cats with quotes weren’t nearly as popular as you think. I’m really not sure how humanity was motivated to do anything in those days, honestly.

ThoughtCatalog.Com has a great guide for how to get one started and what content should fill the commonplace box up. When I read through their instructions, one piece of advice really stood out for me:

Actually writing the stuff down is crucial. I know it’s easier to keep a Google Doc or an Evernote project of your favorite quotes…but easy has got nothing to do with this. As Raymond Chandler put it, “when you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.”

This project isn’t about easy. It isn’t about storage, either. It’s about learning and using that knowledge later in your own projects – from poems and short stories to full blown novels. Reading tidbits of information is one mode of learning them, but by writing them down, another layer of memory is formed around the information. Building a commonplace box makes every bit of information in that box apart of you through the process of reading, writing, and revisiting the information within the box.

Here are a few examples of different commonplace boxes.

I sometimes keep a journal when I read epic or spanning works, like Metamorphosis by Ovid, and by drawing pictures, rewriting stories, or mapping common themes within books like Metamorphosis, I was able to learn the information well enough to recall it years later. Whenever I revisit my Metamorphosis journal, I’m able to remember almost every instance of creation and the inspiration behind my doodles, stories, and notes.

For my commonplace box, the first thing to be filed would be my Metamorphosis journal. I would next start cataloging some of my favorite quotes as well from some of my favorite authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. For good measure, I’d stick in some motivational stuff like some tips on how to beat writer’s block and, for even better measure, I’d throw in a few cat pictures as well.

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